The Ref (1994, dir. Ted Demme) was this writer’s go-to Christmas movie for many years. It topped a pile that includes Trading Places (1983, dir. John Landis), Home Alone (1990, dir. Chris Columbus) and others as the ideal festive film. A beautifully judged dark comedy, full of quotable dialogue, one great scene after another and excellent performances from Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Glynis Johns and a wonderful cast. Sadly, it also stars Kevin Spacey and his entire back catalogue of work is now open to individual reassessment regarding how much one can enjoy the work of a serial sex offender. It’s easier when a performer is part of an ensemble but when, as in The Ref, a huge part of the film’s success relies on an audience engaging with the embittered Lloyd (played by Spacey) as he finds his soul again, it becomes trickier.
What has this got to do with Cash on Demand (1961, dir. Quentin Lawrence)? Well, Cash on Demand came along at exactly the right time at just that point last year when The Ref was, at least then, not on the schedule. It’s not just the ideal Christmas movie but a reminder that, for those of us who despair at humanity most days, change is possible. Based on the play, it’s the tale of bank manager Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing), a fussily fastidious man who rules over his branch not so much with a clenched fist but a puckered sphincter. The opening scenes set up the tight-knit team of staff in the bank as they await Fordyce’s arrival. When he does appear their anxious joviality is curtailed and it’s down to the business of money. Not long after this, André Morell pulls up at the bank, his character Colonel Gore-Hepburn supposedly an insurance inspector but in fact a bank robber. Using threats and coercion, Gore-Hepburn forces the unravelling Fordyce to partake in robbing his own bank. Without giving anything away, the plot twists, new wrinkles are added and tension is ratcheted up. Throughout all this Cushing is wonderfully good, ensuring Fordyce is no cliche and imbuing him with humanity throughout. Morell matches him as the smooth, assured and ruthless bank robber.
Cash on Demand is essentially a riff on A Christmas Carol. Fordyce might not be the wicked man Scrooge was, but he has forgotten what makes a person. He’s not mean to his staff so much as dismissive of their feelings, only focussing on the bank and profit. We know early on he has a child and wife he feels affection for, but that’s as far as human warmth goes for him. As Gore-Hepburn’s scheme to steal thousands of pounds unwinds, and Fordyce is forced to become part of the heist, he must confront what he has become, what is really important to him, and reconnect with the world he lives in. It’s an uplifting, heartwarming film about hope and change and our ability for both that’s sorely needed in these days. The Christmas trappings aren’t window dressing either. The time of year the story is set is intrinsic to the mood and atmosphere of the piece and to Fordyce’s journey.
Of course, it’s a fine film that could be shown at any time of year. But what it says about us as people is a classic Christmas message. If you want a beautifully judged thriller, full of quotable dialogue, one great scene after another and excellent performances all round, this is the way to go.